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No Cinderella Story for Ilia Malinin at US Nationals

by George S Rossano


A young new face comes out of nowhere, trounces several of the established favorites and wins the silver medal in the National Championship of their sport.  In the past this would have ended with a feel-good story with the rising star named to the Olympic Team and likely going on to fame and a storied career.  But not anymore, not in U.S. Figure Skating and not at the 2022 National Championships.

In the Men's event, with three spots on the line for selection to the Olympic Team, newcomer to the senior ranks Ilia Malinin rose to the occasion.  In the short program he placed third, trouncing fourth place finisher Jason Brown in technical marks, landing two quads (one in combination with a triple toe loop) and triple Axel.  This to Brown's triple Axel and, count them, zero quads.  Against Vincent Zhou in second place, Malinin trailed in technical marks by just 2.76 points.

In the free skate Malinin trounced Brown again, placing second against Brown's third, with four clean superb quads against a one-quarter-cheated quad Salchow with a fall.  Malinin also trounced Zhou who placed fourth.  Malinin proved himself in Nashville to be not only the U.S. Men's premier skater of the future (some calling him the next Nathan Chen), but to be a premier skater for right now.  His score of 302.48 at Nationals was higher than every men's score in the 2021 Grand Prix, except for a 307.18 from Nathan Chen.  In fact, since the start of 2012 he is one of only three men to score above 300 points, Chen and Hanyu being the other two, making him a legitimate bronze medal contender for the Winter Games.

In the past, this would have earned Malinin easy selection to the Olympic Team.  In Russia, with the same results as in Nashville, the decision would have been made in Malinin's favor in less than 30 seconds.  But not in the U.S.  Not when politics and sentimentality contaminate selections.

In the not too distant past, thanks to the Amateur Sports Acts of 1978 and 1998, the team was selected based on order of finish except in the most extraordinary circumstances, eliminating the politics that existed prior to the sports acts.  But then and now selection to the U.S. Figure Skating Team cannot be based solely order of finish, as that would make Nationals the Olympic trials, in which case all the revenue of Nationals would flow to USOPC and not U.S. Figure skating.

U.S. Figure Skating currently (with the approval of USOPC) uses not only the results at Nationals but results from the past two seasons, with various weighting factors specified.  On paper this makes the process look objective.  Yet it is not.

First, not all skaters eligible for consideration have a lengthy enough competition record to check off all the boxes (stacking the deck against rising newcomers), so there is still a comparing of apples and oranges.

Second, despite the numerical weighting factors specified, no attempt is made to roll these up into a meaningful numerical ranking which would be truly objective.  Further, while performance trends going into the Olympics are supposed to be relevant, there is also no numerical calculation of performance trending leading to an objective numerical ranking - and given how infrequently skaters compete it is questionable whether trending can be meaningful at all.

So while on paper it's about competition history, in reality, there are so many factors spanning  such a long period of time, anyone can come up with any selection they want among the top 4-5 skaters and point to something in the criteria to justify any choice.

And then there is the rampant sentimentality in U.S. Figure skating.

U.S. skating history is littered with decisions that are based on sentimentality towards old timers and not on objective logic and facts.  This time the beneficiary of that is Jason Brown.

U.S. Figure Skating loves Jason Brown.  The fans love Jason Brown.  Heck, I love Jason Brown.  He is the ultimate artistic skater whom I hope would be an inspiration and role model to all skaters who seek the pinnacle of artistic achievement in skating.  But in technical marks and in total point scoring ability his time is past and Malinin's time is now - or should have been.

Instead, U.S. Figure skating has chosen to give Brown a lifetime achievement award in the form of selection to one last Olympic team.  There is no other way to view it when you take everything into consideration and add the fact he was not named to the World Team, where the results really matter as they will determine the number of U.S. Men's entries in 2023.

So Malinin will have to wait his turn, just as it has always been since the days of old in U.S. Figure Skating.

And this approach is one factor why Russia and the other major skating countries overall clean our clock.

Notes:  Malinin meets the minimum technical scores for Four Continents and the Olympic Winter Games but not the World Championships (which are higher).  He will have to compete internationally prior to Worlds to earn the minimum technical score for the short program in order to compete in Montpellier.  He actually scored Worlds minimum technical scores at 2020 Skate America, but those scores do not count due to the primarily domestic nature of the competition that year.  This season at Cup of Austria he met the free skate minimum, but was 0.22 points below minimum for the short program.  He met both minimums at the 2021 JGP in Linz, but those do not count, as the scores must be from a senior competition.

To confuse his situation further, he was not sent to Four Continents to earn his minimum technical score and get senior exposure before ISU judges before Worlds, and he could not go to the Bavarian Open in Jnuary as the entry deadline there was prior to U.S. Nationals.